Monday, 16 November 2015

Exercising the Mind

A while back I talked about finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. As a result, I wrote a mini scenario based around a restaurant in Athens, the To Treno. As you're probably aware by now, I also write short fiction, and I thought I'd use this time to demonstrate one way of structuring and creating short fiction.

Again I'm going to use one of the Guardian's Top Ten lists. This time it's ten of the best hidden bars in New York, which I'm going to use as a jumping-off point. There are all kinds of options here - I particularly like the Blind Barber - but I think I'm going to go with the No Name in Brooklyn. It has a lot of things I find attractive, particularly that anonymous door, the atmosphere, and that it's open all hours so it gets an eclectic crowd. You can just picture it on, say, a Monday night after the restaurants shut down, and there's no civilians on the streets, just the parade of night workers and after hours people who keep the city running. It works, as a setting, for the tale I want to tell.

Now, a short story usually has to be something around four to seven thousand words. Seven's actually a little high. Most of the outlets I've submitted for so far have insisted on a four thousand word cut-off. What that means is you need to get in there quick. You haven't got time to waste on establishing shots and sentences that go nowhere but look pretty. The focus has to be on getting the most done in the least amount of time.

What do you really need? Well, you need at least one protagonist. Supporting characters can be useful, but aren't essential. You need the setting, which we've already established is going to either be the No Name, or be very like the No Name. Then you need a problem, something to spur the protagonist to action. That action will drive the story forward.

What's the best kind of protagonist for this sort of story? Well, bars need bartenders. This person could be a talented mixologist, the kind of person who wins awards and acclaim. He could be a flair bartender, the sort you might have seen in the movies.It can be fascinating to watch; I dread to think how many bottles are sacrificed to the floor paving in order make a talent like that.

Designing a character can be relatively simple. In fact we've discussed this before, when I talked about villain design, and campaign planning. The same tactics that work there, work here. We don't have as much time here to flesh out every least detail, so rather than answer every possible question I intend to focus on the basics:

  • What is the character’s name, age, ethnicity and gender?
  • Name three physical attributes.
  • What is a problem the character faces?
  • What is a secret the character hopes nobody finds out about?
Since I've been on a bit of a Dracula Dossier kick, I think this time the protagonist will be Romanian, a recent arrival in the US. Female, early twenties, and since the Dossier's kind enough to give some name options, she'll be Timea Barbu.

Tall, muscular, and dark hair that she secretly hates, for physical attributes. She's tried dye jobs, but they never work the way she'd like.

Her problem is that one of her least favorite customers has come in the wrong door of the bar. See below for more information about that.

Her secret is that she hopes nobody finds out she's a vampire hunter. She's trying to get out of the life, which is why she left Romania and why she's working as a bartender now.

That brings us to the problem that the character faces, which I alluded to earlier. That problem will spur her to action, which in turn drives the plot. Now, one of the simpler ways of structuring this kind of story is by giving her what amounts to a series of problems, each of which feeds into the other, in the same way that one scene feeds into another in a Night's Black Agents game. The point being that her initial action moves her forward by further complicating the initial problem. Each attempt she makes to solve her difficulty drives her further and further into the plot.

Generally speaking, you can allow for up to three steps in a short story. The initial obstacle, and her proposed solution, drives us to the second obstacle, which in turn leads to a proposed solution. That solution drives us to the third obstacle, and resolution. Obviously in a longer story you can develop this further, but this is short fiction, and we don't have the time for that.

As a rule of thumb, you can perhaps allow as much as a thousand words to establish the setting and the initial problem. The next thousand can deal with her first proposed solution, and so on. Since we've got a cap of about four thousand words, there's only so many times you can get away with that before you run out of words.

With that in mind, the structure is:

  • Initial thousand establishes the bar, Timea, and the problem.
    • The No Name has two doors, each of which is marked only by an antique knocker, no sign. The difference is that one door is used exclusively by normals, ordinary humans. The other is used exclusively by the spirits, undead, and other unnaturals, also out for a good time. So long as they all stick to their own doors, normals can't 'see' specials, and vice versa. Tonight, one of the normals has decided to break the rules. Well, decided probably isn't the best way of putting it; he's drunk as two skunks, and managed to find the wrong door handle by accident.
      • Proposed solution: get him out the door, quick. Unfortunately one of the specials spots him, and decides to keep him in the bar, as a kind of mascot. Or maybe a snack.
    • OK, if Timea can't get the normal out of the bar, she needs to keep the special occupied. If he's not paying attention to the normal because Timea's putting on a show, then maybe the normal can slip out. Or maybe Timea's bar-back can help out by getting the normal outside.  
      • That didn't go so well. Sure, the special's attention is occupied, but so is the normal, which means he isn't leaving. Plus the bar-back, a Penanggalan, scares him silly. Normal's beginning to sober up, which could be very bad for everyone.
    • New plan. Keep the normal drinking, or he'll sober up, and if he sobers up he'll start to question what he's seeing. Also, keep the special drinking, because that way the special won't have the wherewithal to do anything drastic.
      • Ah, nuts. The normal's settling down, after the Penanggalan scare, but the special's just getting belligerent. 
    • Final option. It's closing time, folks. Timea offers to walk the normal home. At least that way the special won't eat him. Except the special really, really wants to eat him ...
      • Resolution! One way or the other ...
There you have it! Once this story is finished it will appear on my Patreon. If I can finish it before the 20th, it will appear this month; if not, then it will appear next month, and something else will fill the slot.

I hope you found this entertaining!

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